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Differences in reporting crimes confuse the public: SoE

Posted on: June 23, 2020 by Ian Murray

The intervention by the UK Attorney General’s office at the weekend reminding the media of the rules in reporting alleged crimes following the Reading killings, is also a reminder of the differences that exist between this nation’s approach to reporting crime and that of the US.

In fact, the Reading reports that I believe safely and legitimately named and used photographs of the alleged killer, were only one example of the differing restraints and constraints between the press here and over there, writes Society of Editors executive director Ian Murray.

However, while the UK mainstream media reports under the constraints required of it to ensure fair trials, little is done to clamp down on social media speculation where trolls and the ignorantly informed do untold harm to both to the accused’s right to a fair hearing and the victims of crime. This is not the case in the United States where the media faces far fewer constraints.

From Reading and Bolton to Minneapolis, Atlanta and New York, the different approaches were laid out for debate over the last few weeks. 

In the case of the fatal attacks in Reading on Saturday, the Attorney General’s office reminded editors of the need to be aware of the laws covering the reporting of crime. Editors would not need to be reminded and they had not overstepped the laws governing such coverage. The media would contend, correctly I believe, that in the immediate aftermath of an incident, balanced, accurate reporting from a regulated mainstream media is essential to keep the public informed. Once charges have been made then the UK press adheres to the the legal constraints that prevent almost all further reporting of detail surrounding the alleged crime, something that has long confused the public hooked on US crime series and news reports.

In Bolton this week, editor of the Bolton News Karl Holbrook found himself having to defend his coverage of a high-profile murder investigation into the stabbing of a little girl when he had, correctly, refused to publish speculation on who the attacker might be. He was forced to hit back against the trolls who had accused the paper of bizarre conspiracy theories for not naming a suspect until they were formally charged.

“The simple reality was that the suspect hadn’t been charged and the last thing I was willing to do was publish something that could stand any chance of disrupting the criminal justice process, and therefore scupper this heartbroken family’s chance of getting justice,” Holbrook told HoldTheFrontPage.

All of this debate would no doubt amaze colleagues across the Pond where summary justice and, some would say, trial by media is seen as the norm.

Indeed, as we have witnessed in the sadly growing number of cases involving police and alleged assaults on black men and women, the authorities themselves are quick to openly point the finger of blame long before the officer has their day in court, in some cases before they are even charged with an offence.

The summary firing of officers accused of involvement in the deaths of George Floyd in Minnesota and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta by police chiefs before any court appearance can be interpreted – and is – as swift action being taken, but it would not be permissible here in the UK. For a force to be seen to be acting as judge and jury prior to a hearing would be an unacceptable prejudicing of any future legal action.

In the most recent case in New York where an officer is accused of a now banned choke hold, the response was his suspension but without pay.

In the US, media outlets and commentators have continued to describe the deaths of Mr Floyd and Mr Brooks as murders, despite charges having been laid and before any court verdict, something that would be deemed in the UK as not just unacceptable but also illegal.

We in the UK cannot expect to influence the US media in the hope it will put more effort into enabling a fair hearing under the law for those accused. And here in the UK the media would wish to see some movement towards more open availability of information from police investigations, at least prior to charges being laid. It is, after all, inconceivable that police body camera footage of an alleged killing would be made available to the UK media within a few hours, as was the case in both the Atlanta and Minnesota deaths.

As editors are aware, the time when public conversation surrounding an alleged crime would be restricted to the media is long gone. Social media will have been rife with talk of the Reading attack and who was to blame, much of it no doubt inaccurate speculation. Far better that the media with its ability to research, edit and fact-check information provide accurate accounts to combat the rumours.

At the heart of this debate is the belief that everyone and anyone, no matter how heinous the crime, deserves the right to a fair trial. No editors, I would contend, would argue with that statement. But how to achieve that in an age where anyone can be a publisher and the public increasingly demands answers at the press of a button?

To be fair, we cannot blame the public for tweeting something that breaks the sub judice or defamation laws when they aren’t aware they even exist; indeed when everything they see in popular culture from the US contradicts those laws.

The UK mainstream media does follow the rules. Justice is the better for it.